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It is often assumed that the gold standard for getting career experience while in graduate school is some sort of proximal, temporary job such as an internship or fellowship. This type of work experience has the potential to enhance a job application and provide valuable career insight, and it can often position you for that next full-time job.

But an internship requires a high level of commitment and should be a targeted, intentional engagement -- particularly for a Ph.D. student, whose time is limited and jam-packed with academic requirements. So if you are going to take time to get job-related experience, you want to make sure it is the right kind of experience -- one related to your job goals.

If you find yourself itching and ready to engage in some sort of “real-world” experience, take a moment to determine how clear you are on your next career move or the job you are seeking. Are you able to describe with intention and clarity the work with which you want to engage?

To those who are thinking, “Any experience is better than none,” I ask you to consider the graduate student who decides to take time out of their academic training to do an internship or some sort of intensive, full-time work experience and, about two weeks into the job, determines that this work is not a fit for their interest and/or they do not find the experience helpful in bringing clarity to their career goals. They have now committed six, eight or 10 weeks (or more) of their time to something that is off target for their career goals.

People typically view an internship as the only or best way to explore a career. But I hear from students (not infrequently) who say they probably could and should have done some more exploratory work in advance that would have helped them determine if the internship they now held was the right fit.

Figure 1

What I would suggest is that you instead think about framing the gathering of work experience on a continuum of career engagement that links your process of gaining job experience with your career clarity. (See Figure 1.)

Here is what I mean. Consider first one end of the continuum: the more exploratory side, where the type of experience you might engage in would be lower risk, require less intensive time commitment and is focused on experiences that are more vicarious and short-term. You probably have done some of this already. For example, you may have read about a career online, or watched a video.

Moving down the continuum a bit more, you may have attended a career panel or some sort of organized event where you have talked to a person or a number of people about their career -- a slightly higher method of engagement. In this way, you are beginning to learn about your interests in and fit with a career or job, and that is important information. It’s untested data to be sure, but given what you are learning, it can be a clue to what might be the next step for engagement.

For example, you might determine that what you are hearing is interesting enough to set up some time to explore a job more thoroughly through an informational interview. To do this, you could spend some quality time on LinkedIn stalking the career paths of various people and decide to set up a meeting with a professional who is doing work that you have determined is interesting and with whom you now want to begin making active contact. You may even tell that contact that you have spent some time researching their career path and would like to talk with them to get their take. This demonstrates to that professional that you are seriously interested and begins to foster those important career contacts.

As you continue to move down this continuum, you might then begin to conduct a series of targeted informational interviews with different people in various jobs and careers, maybe with more influential decision makers who could help you find work in a field or industry. You get the idea, and you may have already participated in this level of engagement.

Now this is the part in our story where people often jump to an internship as the next and logical step. Students do some preliminary career research and then decide to take that deep dive into the internship pool because they have had a few interesting conversations and feel ready for an internship. But you should first pause a moment to determine how much clarity you have around the career you want to pursue and then take a stage-appropriate next step. (Remember the continuum of engagement framing.) Think intentionally about whether that level of engagement and time commitment matches your clarity and availability.

For many graduate students, the kind of time commitment an internship calls for is not practical and, for some career paths, internships are far and few between. Other grad students may want to determine how serious they are before they make their interest known to their adviser, and an internship can be a fairly public declaration. So, by all means, seek experience, but you may want to consider a different model than the 30-40 hours a week over a semester or summer that an internship or fellowship may require.

So what does all this mean? Consider and explore ways you might engage with an organization if you had a half day, a day or a series of days (be it a week or a few times over several weeks). Are they hosting an event that you might attend? Could you contribute to a particular project?

Many people think of this as shadowing, but what I am suggesting is to actively read about and ask questions regarding the work of a particular organization. This is more than just observing. (And really, how many people want you to just watch them work?) Instead, it requires you to seriously explore where your interest, skills and commitment align with the organization’s and where a short-term engagement might make sense.

At the University of Michigan, we call these short-term, ideally reciprocal experiences “immersives.” And while we have established some formalized immersive experiences through a Mellon grant we received last year, many students set up their own by contacting and exploring with organizations where their career interests and skills are most relevant.

Some examples of short-term, lower commitment engagements in which students at the University of Michigan have participated include volunteering their time to set up and coordinate a conference or a meeting as well as attending key organizational meetings that, while not open to the public, were possible for them to sit in on and share their perspective (for example, a forum on international education that happened regularly on our campus).

Another student helped an organization set up a student advisory group by vetting the committee process and materials. And still other students provided feedback during a grant review process. We have had students identify work products of interest and spend a few lunch hours discussing these with an employer, whom they identified through informational interviewing.

You can find many ways to riff off this idea, and you may already be doing some aspect of this type of engagement. What I am encouraging you to do is to actively develop your own continuum of career engagement as a method for building your job-related experience in a more intentional and fluid way.

As you progress in your graduate program, take into consideration where you are in your own career clarity and build off that knowledge, step by step. Seek career experience. Take action. But do it at a level that serves your goals.

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